A Roman Road, the perfect test for shoes, backpack and the spirit of a simple man. With this in mind, and before I start the 2,500 kilometre walk with Indian donkeys in November, it seemed wise to stretch out my legs, at least to find their faults and flush out their possibilities and impossibilities, by walking a gentle 220 kilometres from Seville to Merida. Ok, gentle it was not; the Spanish sun is brutal in July and I now appreciate the sensible locals custom of enjoying a siesta as the sun rises. But I am not walking with donkeys to become a sensible man.
Other than walking a Roman Road I once walked Hadrian’s Wall, all 125 kilometres. I remember the walk for the serenity it provided and the freedom to think with order. At the time it seemed a mammoth distance! Oh, how deluded the insensible can be.
This is the novella of a small walk along a Roman Road to prepare me for a long walk along an Indian coastline. I hope you enjoy the Roman Road as a prelude to Walking with Donkeys.
Seville to Merida
To Castilblanco de las Arroyos
I had stepped out from the Cathedral in central Seville with the early dawn some four hours before, and had now arrived in the small town of Guillena to enjoy breakfast before walking north into the hinterlands of Andalusia towards my ambition, the big open hot and extreme lands of – my destination – Extremadura.
My feet were still good, the heat was yet at its zenith for the day, (a cruel fate awaited me for I had not yet experienced the sun at its full extreme) and I was resting for the first time after 22km in one of Guillena small cafés.
Being a traditional Englishman aboard the day was too early for the local’s custom of coffee. And I don’t want coffee – I want tea – it is after all still breakfast! I flippantly asked the kindly looking short plump waitress for a pot of tea. I explained, ‘please leche frio’ (cold milk) as clearly as my little use of the language allowed. Her outlandish expression told me immediately my request was strange and that she was thinking already she was dealing with a mad Englishman. She was right – maybe. Then her lips turned into a single held smile, given to pacify my madness. On her return, I received a small metal pot (hardly a teapot) of cold milk with a tea bag floating like a life raft bobbing about ill at ease on a high sea. I quickly rescued the sinking tea bag, returned inside the café with tea bag in one hand and milk pot in the other and tried to explain my predicament to the waitress. A number of local farmers gathering after their morning field work completed the interior set up and they looked on intrigued. They did not drink tea or coffee. They drank beer and brandy. They were looking forward to a siesta. Gradually they became intrigued in my behaviour and stared at me as I tried to explain to the curvy waitress (Rembrandt would find her a perfect model) I wanted the tea bag in hot water. The confused, round faced waitress, her hands on her no-nonsense round hips, her black dress pleated below the waist so it flowed down to her knees, stared her dark brown eyes at me as if I had suggested some form of dishonest and immoral conduct with her and the tea bag. The farmers were no help. One grunted. Another removed his hat. Another scratched his groin. Another rolled his fingers over his stubby chin. Another stood up to look at something behind the bar, and then sat down again. I felt very awkward. I tried again to explain, this time by speaking with slow petulant words from unhurried rotating lips, until, with a little help from the farmers, the waitress tried to take back the milk pot from my hand. I was very reluctant to allow my hard fought leche frio to be returned, and instead pointed my hand holding the dripping tea bag at her stack of tea pots and then at the spout of the coffee machine. The farmers and the waitress chatted amongst themselves with differing views as I interjected with desperation – ‘Non – Non – Agua!’ – because I am sure they had decided Senor quiere leche caliente, (Mr wants hot milk!) until with sudden recognition at my gestures ‘Ah senor! Quiere aqua caliente!’ (Mr wants hot water!)
The waitress adding, as if I was a monkey, ‘debería haber dicho lo!’ (you should have said so!)
Outside I sat with trepidation not knowing what would return and to take my mind off the expectation I tucked into a tostado. I certainly knew I richly deserved this first feast of the walking day now I had the first pilgrim’s path behind me.
Oh! To eat when deserving! Each bite a small joy, each small joy a feast I had earned. With the tea arriving from the Rembrandt’s desirable, smiling waitress, the farmers staring out from behind the window bars for my approval, the man to my left, his walking boots removed and drawing on a cigarette suggested ‘I would enjoy however the tea comes.’ I could not disagree with the man and already I was smiling back at the waiting waitress as I, with trepidation, looked inside the tea pot. She retuned happy with my smile to the farmers inside who continue drinking beer and brandy and talking about the stranger, their inquisitive nature I am sure now satisfied.
‘I will enjoy each drop as if it is an elixir.’ I replied to the man on my left. ‘My tea drinking days are over for the time being. I will have to learn how to relish morning coffee like a local. Are you walking north?’ I enquired and carried on tucking into my tostado.
‘Yes to Santiago. First day out, and you?’
‘No, as far as Merida, following the Roman Road. Then I expect my feet will have fallen off and I’ll be walking on stumps.’
He drew unhurriedly on his cigarette. Like me, time suddenly had no importance. When the waitress appeared he ordered another coffee and I poured my second cup of tea. This was to be my last cup of tea of the journey. (There was to be one exception.)
He removed his round rimless glasses. He wiped clean the glasses on a paper serviette from the red dispenser between drinking coffee and looking out at the road. I am sure he was contemplating. I wanted to cross-examine him and find out the reason for such a journey. But I knew from his conduct with his slow enjoyment of the coffee and the even slower pleasure from the draw on his cigarette he was not a man who came naturally to speaking his reason.
‘English?’ I asked.
‘No Dutch, but you are – because you drink tea.’ A smile broke across his face. He carried an awkward presence. I knew immediately I was in the company of a dignified and quiet man.
‘Yes, I am. With such fluent English without a defining accent, you must be Dutch.’ I replied knowing this to be undeniable as I enjoyed the last of my Tostado. ‘How long?’ I asked.
‘Sorry? Oh, I see; I expect to be walking for a good month or more. Not that it matters. Yes, 30 to 40 days.
‘Merida is a week or so away, but if it takes two weeks, then so be it. It is good not to have time as a barrier.’ He nodded his head, shrugged his rounded shoulders, placed his glasses back on his nose as if he had never considered time could have a fluid tempo.
One by one the men from inside the bar left. One local pointing at the tea pot chatting to me with some form of sociable wit which I reciprocated in my own awkward way. This amused the Dutchman.
When I had finished my feast I wished the Dutchman good day. Tied up my backpack, stamped the souls of my walking shoes on the ground like a bull, settled payment with the adorable waitress, thanked her for the tea and made my way out of Guillena, on to start my journey to that night’s resting spot, Castilblanco de Los Arroyos.